Letters from Kathmandu #16

Letters from Kathmandu #16: The Fourth Staircase

By Craig Greenman
(Visiting Professor of Philosophy, King’s College)

July 2021

Dear family and friends,

What’s at the top of the mountain?  Americans.

Let me start here:  I was determined to summit the small mountain ridge just southwest of Kathmandu (I wrote about it in Letter #11).  The trek began badly; I confirmed, with my own eyes, what my English friend had said:  My favorite Newar park was clean only because they dumped their trash over a cliff, and eventually into the Bagmati River.  As I sat at the park and digested this, a boy came up to me and said, “Morning.”  I smiled at him, and replied, “Good morning.”  He kept saying it – “Morning, morning” – then put out his hand; and I realized what he was saying . . .

I showed him the hole in my left sneaker – I can’t buy new ones here because my feet are too big – and I replied (though he couldn’t have understood): “Do I look like I have money, kid?”  It was a lie, because I had 600 rupees (about $5 dollars) in my pocket, probably more than he’d ever had.  He stared at me, confused, and walked away.  

I’d been begged from another time at the park; a man had smiled and waved, which I thought had meant – because then, like now, I needed to see a friendly face – he liked me.  But it turned out he just wanted money.  I refused, because my friends had told me never to give alms here; but afterwards, I felt bad, and when I returned to the park later, I tried to find him, but he was gone.

Sometimes I feel like a walking dollar sign in Nepal.  When I’m identified with wealth – and in American terms, I’m not that wealthy (I own only my car and two guitars, and I live in a one-bedroom apartment) – I try to remember the women in the United States who get stared at for their sex, or the black men who get stereotyped as athletes.  Then I think of John McWhorter, a black professor at Columbia, who says he experiences racism once in a while, but doesn’t let it get to him.  Most of his interactions with whites are positive; so too for me, with Nepalis.  I shouldn’t be such a crybaby.

Earlier, I’d walked across the Bagmati flood plain, which was full of grazing animals, including buffaloes.  One had a goat trailing her; she got annoyed, and put her curved horns down and chased him away.  I smiled – what a dummy that goat was! – but then I approached another one and she started at me, too.  I quickened my pace; one herder saw it and, laughing, distracted her.

There were a few white cranes shadowing the buffalo, and some crows riding bareback on the cattle.  I spotted one exotic-looking crane with a curved head, standing in the grass; I waxed poetic, thinking, “Oh, isn’t Nepal beautiful!  They have all these amazing birds we don’t have in America!”  On closer inspection, it was an umbrella, stuck in the mud. 

Further on, I smelled marijuana.  It grows wild in the Kathmandu Valley; and while it’s not as ubiquitous as I’d been told, it does grow by the roadside.  Then I crossed a footbridge – this one finished – near a lovely French colonial-looking house, with green rice paddies.  I thought of Vietnam; then of the great French author, Marguerite Duras, who grew up there.  I met a nice man on a motorcycle, who’d just passed me, politely, without beeping; he was waiting for some pedestrians to cross the footbridge.  I followed him across, but another motorcyclist came the other way.  I opened my legs and blocked him – as I’d done with my little brother, cruelly, when I was a teen and he wanted to walk down the hallway – and said, “You couldn’t wait?”  He tried to get around me, but – maybe it’s the foreign language that gives me the courage (I was the same in Montreal when I hit on a server in French) – I patted him on the back and said, “M*******.” 

Finally, I found a trail my English friend had told me about; it became another staircase, running to the top of the ridge.  As I climbed, the air grew cooler and I could smell the pines.  The grass was a pure, almost violent green; and I kept looking around me in wonder.  That and the altitude made me lightheaded.  I thought again of my little brother, who was now much bigger than me, and who had ascended near the Everest Base Camp in Nepal.

The landscape reminded me of The Chronicles of Narnia – fantastic – but there were small piles of trash, some of them burning.  I heard shouting across the valley – a call and response, like a marching band camp – and I heard a familiar language up the trail.  I walked past more trash (you always know where the human beings have been in Nepal), and I saw two young white men with a Nepali companion.

“Hey, how’s it going?” one of them said; to which I responded, flatly, “Hi.”  It was an American.  The last thing I’d expected to see up here – this was my ridge! – was an American.  (I briefly forgot that I was one, too.)  I wanted to avoid him, but mostly – even desperately – to talk to him.  I hadn’t spoken to an American (except by phone) for over three months.  But I couldn’t find a way to get close without looking weird, so I went back to my former spot; he and his companions would have to pass me before they left.

And so they did; and so we introduced ourselves.  The Americans were from Alabama; one was a medivac helicopter pilot and had been living here, with his wife and kids, for five months.  The other worked for a company developing alpine skiing in the Himalayas.  He’d lived in Nepal for over three years, also with his wife and kids.  Their Nepali companion didn’t say much, despite my attempts to draw him out with national self-deprecation, and we Westerners ended up talking shop.  I wanted to talk and talk, like a bottle that had just been uncorked.

But my compatriots had to go, and the developer said he’d be “praying” for me (I’d told him I had to decide about a full-time job offer at King’s).  He’d also said it was a “blessing” to get such weather during a monsoon, and that “We love the Nepali people” . . . His tone, and his offer of prayer to me so quickly, rubbed me the wrong way.  It was too evangelical, too self-assured.  (A friend of mine from Alabama said the first question she was asked when moving there was, “What church do you belong to?”)  K. has told me stories of Christian missionaries who essentially buy converts in Nepal:  You’ll be more prosperous, their circumstances imply, if you love Jesus.  K. doesn’t like it, though he believes that all religions have a truth (as do I).

But wasn’t I a “missionary,” too?  I was teaching Western philosophy at King’s College, and assuming that knowledge of, say, Plato would help my students.  Then again, I’d taught Asian philosophy in the U.S., so I went both ways . . . 

I asked myself:  If I came back to Nepal, would I be an immigrant or a colonist?  And what’s the difference?  When folks from “south of the border” come to the U.S. and bring their culture – which has deeply impacted ours (there are four Mexican restaurants in my small New England city) – are they one or the other?  If they are colonists, at least culturally, is that so bad?  New Hampshire calls its sites “colonial”; but Europeans killed or exiled most of the Native American population . . . Is that the difference between immigration and colonization: violence?  But I wasn’t killing anybody in Nepal, at least not on purpose . . . 

Despite his theological self-assurance, my Christian spoke like a true empiricist – and a sensitive, thoughtful one – when I asked his advice about living long-term in Nepal.  “Embrace it,” he said.  “If you feel like it’s just a stopping point to someplace else, you’ll get burned out.”  Yes.  Once you know you’re leaving, you get judgmental, then too sentimental, both of which can overwhelm you.  I appreciated his advice, and I really had no evidence that he was a pushy evangelist . . . He could just have been a devout man, like K., except with a different god.

After we parted ways, I began to look for a way down the mountain, by way of the unfinished staircase (again, see Letter #11).  I did find a staircase, but the wrong one, my fourth overall (the second had led to a small temple carved into the side of a mountain; impressive, but out of my way) – and I descended its narrow, stony steps, shut in by leafy vegetation.  Lower and lower . . . Till I fell out into a large, manicured park; it had a sculpture of a royal couple, then another of a cat-god.  I’d found another jewel.  I went down a road and came upon the Champadevi Temple – a colorful, clean shrine to someone-or-other . . . 

A handsome gay couple arrived (at least I assumed they were gay; the straight men here walk arm in arm), and a man in short shorts asked where I was from.  Then he asked – this puzzled me – if I was alone.  It hit me, because I’d been feeling particularly alone that day, especially after seeing my countrymen:  Was it that I couldn’t choose a side, American or Nepali, Christian or Hindu?  I seemed to belong nowhere; but my friends told me, nonsense, I belonged everywhere.  I guess we all feel like we don’t belong sometimes; but it gets lonely not to have a definite “tribe,” political or religious . . . 

My last memory of that day is watching an old woman walk down a trail – it had just rained and the trail was very wet – with a load of grass on her back, a strap around her forehead.  I wondered, “How is she going to get down without slipping?”  But she did fine:  Pat, pat, pat, slowly down the mountain.  I was so impressed by her skill – or I hadn’t developed it yet – that I slipped and fell.

I fly to India in eight days; then on to Boston three days later.  I’ll be home by the end of July.  I hope to see some of you then.

Take care,



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